“From All Walks of Life”: Attending an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting to Reduce Addiction Stigma Among Medical Students

Abstract

Objective

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are stigmatized conditions in medicine, with negative attitudes toward patients with SUDs beginning to form in medical school. Only a few studies with small samples show that attending an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting may help decrease addiction stigma. This study examined whether attending an AA meeting impacts medical student attitudes toward patients with SUDs and any gender and age group differences within these attitudes.

Methods

As part of their psychiatry clerkship, 138 third-year medical students attended an AA meeting and wrote reflection essays discussing expectations before the meeting, feelings while there, and thoughts on how these feelings might affect patient care. The authors performed a thematic analysis to identify themes and t tests to compare theme frequency by gender and age group.

Results

A primary theme in student responses was a reduction in stigmatizing attitudes, which was broken down into three subthemes: complexity of addiction (46%), diversity of people with addiction (37%), and practical applications (66%). Practical applications comprised compassionate care (53%) and intention to address SUDs clinically (35%). While no gender differences were found in theme frequency, younger students showed significantly higher frequency of all themes.

Conclusions

Attending an AA meeting can challenge medical students’ stigmatizing attitudes about addiction and increase flexibility of thinking. Younger students’ biases may not be as solidified, stressing the importance of early exposure to patients in recovery during medical school. Attending an AA meeting and reflecting on the experience may be one way to decrease addiction stigma among medical students.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Sarah Kepple, BA, for assistance with data collection and Brigette Vaughan, APRN, for her constructive feedback on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alëna A. Balasanova.

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Balasanova, A.A., MacArthur, K.R. & DeLizza, A.A. “From All Walks of Life”: Attending an Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting to Reduce Addiction Stigma Among Medical Students. Acad Psychiatry 44, 714–720 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40596-020-01302-0

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Keywords

  • Stigma
  • Addiction
  • Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Medical student
  • Substance use disorder